I am a Nationalist
There you go – I’ve said it. I subscribe to a political philosophy that (in the context of the Scottish Independence debate at least) dare not speak its name. The very word itself has become a term of almost universal opprobrium. Whether it’s Scot Nats, Cybernats or Brit Nats the very word ‘nationalist’ has become a meaningless playground insult intended to deny standing to whoever it is aimed at.
The force of that opprobrium is such that most people who I know feel the need to preface any statement in support of independence with the comment ‘I’m not a nationalist, but…’. Now anyone who has had a basic introduction to the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming can tell you that the moment you insert the word ‘but’ into a sentence it completely negates everything that precedes it. To say ‘I’m not a nationalist, but…’ is simply to say ‘I’m a nationalist’.
And it’s not just on the pro-independence side that we can find such linguistic confusion. One of the favourite refrains that I’m sure we all hear regularly is ‘I’m not a nationalist, I’m an internationalist’. It’s an oxymoronic statement that ignores the simple fact that the very word ‘international’ means ‘between nations’. By its very definition it’s impossible to be an internationalist without recognising that different nations exist and that, presumably, one respects the differences between those nations.
So why the near universal rush for everyone to disassociate themselves from nationalism? The obvious and simple reason is because in the UK we have been indoctrinated into believing that nationalism is simply a synonym for fascism. Presumably this is why Johann Lamont feels perfectly comfortable making statements such as:
‘Yes, conference, the next year is about defeating the politics of nationalism – a virus that has infected so many nations and done so much harm. An ideology that never achieved anything.’
I don’t doubt the sincerity of Lamont’s beliefs so let’s start by identifying the areas where I agree.
I agree that nationalism is an extremely dangerous idea. Put simply nationalism is the extremely dangerous idea that countries should be governed according to the democratically expressed wishes of their citizens and not in the interests of a miniscule power elite.
If you want to know how dangerous an idea nationalism is then simply consider the fact that if I were writing this article 200 years ago then I, and anyone who helped published this piece, would have been subject to arrest, tried for sedition and almost certainly sentenced to transportation to Australia. That was the exact fate that befell many of those 19th century radicals who represented the closest thing that Britain has ever had to its own nationalist movement. They include the Scottish lawyer Thomas Muir and the other members of the Friends of the People, and movements such as the United Irishmen, United Scotsmen and United Englishmen.
Now don’t get me wrong – it took quite some time for me to come round to thinking of myself as a nationalist. Like most people I had come to unquestioningly accept the received wisdom that says that nationalism is a regressive force. The turning point for me came a few years ago when I was talking politics with my German partner. I made some flippant, offhand remark about German nationalism having paved the way for the rise of Hitler. She simply looked at me with a bit of a pitying expression on her face and replied ‘You do know that in Germany the nationalists were the people who were fighting to establish the first ever German democracy don’t you?’
That one statement sparked the realisation that I actually had almost no knowledge or understanding of what nationalism really is or how it had come to exist. And so I went away and started doing my homework.
It turns out that we can answer that question pretty easily – the American Revolution is the genesis of nationalism as a political movement. Driven by the writings of radicals such as Tom Paine, the American Revolution was the first stand against the monarchical rule that had dominated Europe for millennia. The American revolutionaries looked back to an era before Europe was ruled by petty tyrants and modeled their system of democratic government on the Greek and Roman republics of classical antiquity.
The American revolutionaries brought together numerous strands of political thought that had developed across Europe and that made their way across the Atlantic as radicals and authors headed west seeking an escape from oppression or censorship at home. The success of the revolution placed the United States in the vanguard of history, influencing the whole of world politics down to the present day. It became a catalyst that encouraged nationalist ideals to spread like wildfire (or like a virus you might say).
The French Revolution followed hard on the heels of the American Revolution. From there the idea migrated back across the Atlantic again where it inspired the Black Jacobin movement in the Caribbean. General Toussaint Louverture led a slave uprising which successfully brought about the emancipation of slaves and which would eventually establish Haiti as the world’s first ever black-led republic and only the second republic in the Western hemisphere (after the United States).
From Haiti the baton passed to South America, where Simón Bolívar led the revolution that liberated large swathes of the continent from Spanish Imperial rule. Almost every country that now exists in the whole of the Americas owes its existence either to a nationalist revolution in the 19th century, or to a nationalist movement in the 20th century.
Next up came the European Revolutions of 1848. In France the Emperor Louis Philippe was toppled and the Second Republic emerged. In what we now call Germany the nationalist movement attempted to unify the numerous small kingdoms that had been left scattered by the end of the Holy Roman Empire. A parliament was created in Frankfurt – the first institution to fly the red, black and gold flag of the German republic. It was also the last to do so until the creation of the Weimar Republic in 1919. In Hungary the people rose up against the Hapsburg Empire and attempted to win their independence from Austria. They were defeated after Russia started preparations to invade Hungary with 30,000 troops to crush the rebellion and ensure that Hapsburg rule was maintained.
The revolutions of 1848 failed to bring about permanent democratic change, and so the Imperial powers of Europe continued lumbering along until eventually they began to collapse in the conflagration of World War One. The First World War was the beginning of the end for the old imperialist world order, and the Second World War put the final nail in that particular coffin.
From 1945 onwards post-colonial liberation movements around the world set out on an irreversible journey towards winning their independence from the European powers. If you believe that nationalism is ‘an ideology that never achieved anything’ then I suggest that you try explaining that to people in India, or Kenya or anywhere else across South Asia, South East Asia or most of Africa. I suggest you try explaining it to the Kurds – a people who have been imprisoned, tortured and in some cases ethnically cleansed across four different countries during their struggle to win rights to their own self-determination. Explain it to those who have died on the streets of Egypt and Syria over the last few years as they attempt to overthrow the rule of dictators. If you doubt the achievements of nationalism then simply ask yourself what the ‘N’ in ‘A.N.C.’ stands for.
Robin McAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation puts all of this quite brilliantly:
‘One of the things which it’s become normal to say is ‘I’m not a nationalist, but…’ and the question that I ask in return is ‘So what are you? Do you support a Kingdom, an Empire, Theocracy, Fascism, Anarcho-syndicalism? Which mode of organising the whole of society is it that you favour?’
So how did we wind up in the position where nationalism seems to be one of the most reviled political stances in Scotland? In my experience a great many people who wish to disassociate themselves from the concept do so from a broadly Marxist viewpoint – hence the constant refrain that Scotland’s independence will be an abandonment of working people in the rest of the UK. And yet Marx and Engels were perfectly willing to align themselves with nationalist (or as they viewed it ‘Bourgeois’) revolutions as a means of accelerating the journey towards workers revolution. Indeed the very last page of the Communist Manifesto proclaims their support for the German Revolution of 1848 for precisely that reason.
Another of the favourite reference points for those who describe themselves as ‘internationalists’ is George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism. And yet the very first thing that Orwell says in that essay is that:
‘… there is a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject, but which has not yet been given a name. As the nearest existing equivalent I have chosen the word ‘nationalism’, but it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation — that is, a single race or a geographical area. It can attach itself to a church or a class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.’
He makes it very clear that what he is trying to criticise is not nationalism in the sense in which existed as a historical movement in the 19th century, but rather any form of blind adherence to a supposed set of values whether they be religious or political. In 1945 Orwell didn’t have a word that would suitably encapsulate the concept that he was trying to describe, but we do – ever since 1979 we have referred to such tendencies as ‘fundamentalism’. Yes – Orwell does make criticisms of Irish and Scottish nationalism in that essay. And in the very next sentence he goes on to make the very same criticisms of British nationalism, a concept that at that point in time had scarcely even been articulated.
The thing that worries me at the moment is that a great many people who are campaigning for the preservation of the Union seem to have their concepts confused. Many in the Labour movement scarcely seem to recognise that the whole of socialism essentially grew as an extension of the nationalist struggles of the 18th and 19th centuries. Instead what we continually hear about is their ‘patriotism’, how proud they are to be Scottish.
I’m not proud to be Scottish. Why on earth should I consider myself to be better than anyone else on this planet just because I happen to have been born on one or the other side of an imaginary line across the landscape? Yes, there are a great many people who happen to share that accident of birth with me who have gone on to achieve great things. At the same time, however, there also are a great many people from my country who have been responsible for massive injustices around the globe.
For me the source of the confusion stems from Orwell’s classification of ‘nationalism’ as an aggressive, expansionist force whilst he views ‘patriotism’ as an essentially defensive, protective mechanism.
I adhere to the view that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It is nothing more than a blind, unquestioning faith that those in authority must be correct because they have draped themselves in a flag, or because they can lay claim to some god-given right to rule. Nationalism, on the other hand, questions authority and insists that society should be governed on a democratic basis.
Yes – I am a nationalist. But I will never be a patriot.